Cuba: Interview with Ernesto Padron director of “Meñique”
Those who have read Meñique, a short story adapted by Cuban National Hero Jose Marti for The Golden Age children’s magazine in the 1880’s, know that creativity and perseverance are the most powerful weapons. Ernesto Padron, the director of the animated version of Meñique, spoke with Juventud Rebelde about the work he and an army of animators, painters and computer graphic artist have done so far to adapt the story for cinema.
The production of the film, the first CGI movie ever made in Cuba, started in 2008 at the ICAIC Animation Studios.
Juventud Rebelde: Why did you choose CGI for Meñique?
Ernesto Padron: At the beginning we didn’t plan it to be a CGI film. It would be a traditional animation of the story. One of the characters, a magic Powder Box, is to blame. Its design was too complex for traditional animation. It included, for instance, a projector of holographic images, which shows Meñique who the love of his life is going to be. In my mind, it had a spinning head, somehow similar to that of the cat’s in Alice in Wonderland. And I decided to call Humberto Junco, a CGI expert I had worked with.
Then I invited some painters to design the settings for the film. The shanty town by maestro Reineiro Tama was really wonderful. When we saw the paintings, the animator thought that they were perfect for CGI modeling. I thought it was great because that way we could create a living architecture, open windows, take objects from one floor to the next, and so on. When the painters saw the CGI versions of their work, they were fascinated and I decided to use the same technique for the rest of the settings.
One day, Silvio Rodriguez, who is in charge of the music, came by to see what we have done, and he suggested that we could use CGI for the characters as well. We all told him that was crazy, that he had no idea of what he was talking about. But with time we realized that his idea was great. The quality of the images was excellent, and then there was the advantage of moving virtual cameras at will in tridimensional settings. In addition, we could use lights and shadows to support the dramatic development of the story.
JR: Didn´t you think it was a risk to choose a technique that is relatively new in Cuba, which in addition would cost more than other kinds of films?
EP: Without challenge there is no development. We did some research to compensate for the little we knew about CGI animation and we tried to learn all we could. We had used some CGI animation in the last episodes of Yeyin and other short films. But then our experience was limited to rigid movements —we did a robot— and in the case of Meñique we needed a more realistic animation.
JR: So it was challenge for the animators…
EP: The big studios never reveal how they make their films. Of course there are programs that can help, but no one gives you the secret. The biggest challenge was not designing the characters, but their joints, movements, and face expressions. No one had done anything similar in Cuba before. We used the same animation program used by Pixar. And the system of joints we created was so good that a Basque animation studio selected us to work with them.
JR: Why are you behind schedule?
EP: We haven’t stopped working, not a single moment, but we are two years late from original deadline, which was 2011. The main reason is financing. It is a shame, because when we started we had all the money we needed thanks to a donation of the Villa del Cine Foundation, from Venezuela. Due to the delay we haven’t been able to get the necessary equipment, such as special video cards, computers and servers.
What we have accomplished with the help of ICAIC, has demanded a great deal of effort. Our team members have had to work at home, with their own resources, because we need twenty computers and there are only five available.
JR: How has the Computer Science University (UCI) contributed to the project?
EP: Thanks to the UCI, which is one of our producers, we were able to use their laboratories to train the experts we needed. We think we’ll make a major breakthrough this summer because they have lent the studio six of their computers.
Their students have also being of great help. They have helped with the creation of textures, programming, rendering, and visual effects. The students working with us have not only shown a mastery of computer software but also artistic sensibility and talent.
JR: Was it an advantage or a disadvantage for the artistic design of the film Making a version loosely based on the story ?
EP: I always wanted to combine middle age imagery with Cuban landscapes and culture: a volcano near the Viñales mountains, for example, or a dragon flying over a forest sheltering guijes. And for this a free adaptation was the best, it gave me more freedom to create new dramatic turns and characters.
In Marti’s story, for instance, Meñique just finds the magic Ax, Pick and Walnut, but in our version he will have to gain their trust, and go recruit them in the magic forest where they live.
His intelligence will earn him the Ax, interpreted by Manuel Marin, who makes a Cuban eastern accent, like that of a farmer, which is very funny. Then he conquers the Pick, that we have conceived as a sculptor who lives surrounded by his stone statues. This is sort of a tribute to the artist that created the Stone Zoo in Cuba. The Pick is a deaf-mute and he expresses himself using a system of sings similar to Morse code. And the Walnut is a romantic creature, you have to appeal to feelings to convinced her to do something.
The magic Powder Box is played by Osvaldo Doimeadiós, and there is a new character, a witch, which happens to be the cousin of the King, her name is Barussa, and she is played by Corina Mestre. She is responsible for the enchanted tree disrupting life in the castle, and she also wants her son to marry the princess, so she can get hold of the kingdom. The character of the princess (Yoraisy Gómez) is also more central in this version. In the book she is but a trophy, but in our adaptation Denise is like a Robin Hood who disagrees with the way her father treats the inhabitants of the shanty town. This side story was screened as part of a short film titled Camuflaje at the Cubanima Animation Festival and the public seemed to like it.
JR: At what point of the production are you at?
EP: First, we have recorded all the voices, all of them played by prime actors, such as
Aramís Delgado (the King), Enrique Molina (Pedro) and young Liéter Ledesma, who plays Meñique. We have also finished modeling the settings and the characters, and the motion system for each of them. We are currently in the animation phase, and we are also texturing, illuminating and creating some visual effects. We plan to make it scene by scene, and so far we have finished seven scenes, which is approximately 20 minutes —the film will have a total duration of 80 minutes.
Pardon’s comments make me think that this is not only the dawn of a new Cuban school of animation, but also of a great film by an exceptional artist, physically short, like Meñique, but ready to challenge the giant obstacles in his way.